Update at 0911 KST: White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said that any talks would need to involve some North Korean commitment to denuclearization. “We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization,” she said in a statement. “In the meantime, the United States and the world must continue to make clear that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are a dead end.”
North Korean officials have expressed a “willingness” to engage in dialogue with the U.S., members of a high-level DPRK delegation to South Korea said on Sunday.
The comments were made during an hour-long meeting between South President Moon Jae-in and an eight-member North Korean high-level delegation in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Chief of National Security Office (NSO) Chung Eui-yong and Director of the South’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) Suh Hoon also attended the meeting.
“President Moon emphasized that South-North relations should be extensively expanded and the progress should be made,” Blue House spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom said in a statement, adding that the North Korean side had delivered a message from DPRK leader Kim Jong Un agreeing that relations must improve.
“President Moon Jae-in pointed out the North-U.S. dialogue should be opened as soon as possible for the improvement of the inter-Korean relations and the fundamental solution of the issue of the Korean peninsula,” Kim added.
“The North Korean delegation said they have enough willingness to hold North-U.S. dialogue and shared the view that the South-North relations should be developed alongside the North-U.S. relations.”
Seoul has not elaborated on what North Korea – which has previously insisted that it is not interested in talks with the U.S. – might be willing to discuss.
Earlier in the day Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) carried a commentary accusing the U.S. of undermining recent inter-Korean rapprochement and insisting talks with Washington were impossible.
“We will never have face-to-face talks with [the U.S.] even after 100 years or 200 years,” the commentary read. “This is neither an empty talk nor any threat.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Kim Yong Chol and other members of a high-level North Korean delegation on Sunday evening, in talks ahead of the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
The meeting was Moon’s second with high-level North Korean officials this month, following talks at the Blue House on February 10.
That meeting saw Kim Yo Jong, the sister of current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, invite Moon to Pyongyang for talks.
The South Korean government is yet to formally accept or decline the invitation, though Moon has said he would seek to work towards “establishing conditions” for a summit.
Kim Yong Chol’s comments on Sunday come amid a cooling of tensions on the Korean peninsula and what appears to be an increasing willingness on the part of the U.S. to engage Pyongyang in dialogue.
Returning home after a visit to the South earlier in the month, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Washington was prepared to talk to North Korea without preconditions.
The comments represented a shift from the Trump administration’s long-standing position that any talks would require the North to express a willingness to discuss denuclearization.
Last week it emerged that the North Koreans had canceled a meeting with Pence scheduled to take place on February 10 in South Korea.
The North Korean delegation, led by Kim Yong Chol, kicked off their three-day visit to South Korea on Sunday amid local protests, with the main opposition Liberty Party of Korea attempting to block the visit at the Unification Bridge.
Kim Yong Chol serves as vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and director of the United Front Department of the WPK Central Committee.
He was previously named by South Korean officials as a key mastermind behind the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan warship, which resulted in the deaths of 46 ROK sailors.
The U.S. last week ruled out the possibility of talks between the North Koreans and Senior Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump – who is also visiting the South to attend the closing ceremony of the games.
But both Pyongyang and Washington have this week dispatched officials responsible for DPRK-U.S. dialogue.
Allison Hooker, the director for Korea at the National Security Council (NSC) at the White House, is included in the U.S. delegation.
Hooker reportedly accompanied former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper when he visited the North in 2014 to secure the release of numerous U.S. citizens detained in the country.
Pyongyang, too, has dispatched Choe Kang Il, deputy director general for North American affairs at the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was caught on camera when the DPRK delegation arrived at the South’s CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine) on Sunday.
In January 2017, Choe appeared on U.S. television and called for the Trump administration to “drop America’s hostile policy” towards the DPRK.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Ministry of Unification